Cotton Mather (1663–1728) was one of the most influential and celebrated men of his time. He was a leading cleric (minister) and intellectual in New England, involved in many aspects of public life. Named for his grandfather, Mather was third in a family line of pastors at Boston’s famous Old North Church. His father Increase also served for a time as president of Harvard College. Cotton graduated from the college and became an overseer (trustee), and later helped to establish Yale, turning down its presidency. He was also a controversial figure in the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692, condemning witchery. Altogether, he authored hundreds of works, including the famous Magnalia Christi Americana—a history of Puritanism in America (Silverman, 1984).
In addition, Mather was a dedicated keeper of diaries, and his daily reflections provide insights on the time. With respect to education, Mather’s chronicles of his family life are revealing; they offer a telling perspective on the problems of an 18th-century parent (Hiner, 1979).
In 1717, Cotton Mather was profoundly troubled. The reason was his children, and his 18-year-old son Increase in particular. “Creasy,” as the son was nicknamed, had been accused by a local “harlot” of fathering her child out of wedlock. Mather was mortified, writing in his diary, “Oh! Dreadful Case! Oh, Sorrow beyond any that I have met withal! What shall I do now for the foolish youth! What for my afflicted and abased family?” Mather managed to keep the case out of the courts, and he also kept Creasy confined at home, plying him daily with sermons and remonstrations for piety and good behavior (Hiner, 1979). But Creasy was not very contrite. Just two weeks after being accused, Mather wrote that young Increase had “made a worse exhibition of himself unto me… than I have ever yet met withal.”
Seemingly desperate, Mather wrote in his diary, “Oh my God, what shall I do? What shall I do?” He had harbored great hopes for young Increase, naming him after his own father in hope the child would continue the Mather tradition of conspicuous piety and religious stewardship (Silverman, 1984). What he found instead was a continuing source of anguish and pain, disappointment tempered by love but also humbling and humiliating. It was a difficult trial of parenthood.
Cotton Mather was father to some 16 children. This was a high number even for colonial America, where the average birth rate was about eight per married woman. But Mather also witnessed all but five of his children die, most before the age of four. He also buried two wives, and had married a third just two years before the accusations against Creasy (Hiner, 1979). It is possible that the large size of his family was meant to compensate for these losses. Some researchers have speculated that high birth rates were a response to the fear of death and uncertainty in the New World. If children were likely to die, a family needed more of them (Moran & Vinovskis, 1992). No doubt the revelations about Creasy did little to ease Mather’s anxieties about his family.
There is abundant evidence, however, that Mather cherished his son deeply. Less than two years after the charged illicit union, Creasy was accused of “bearing a part in a night-riot, with some of the most detestable rakes in town.” Once again Mather was distraught. “My miserable, miserable, miserable son Increase,” he wrote in his diary, at the same time asking, “Oh what shall I do?” He decided to send Creasy to stay with his grandfather, who also was upset, and to write him a “tremendous letter” threatening that he would “never own him or do for him or look upon him” until he repented.
Shortly after sending his son away, though, Mather found himself in tears as he asked God to help his son. “Ah poor Increase,” he wrote in his diary, “Tho I spake against him, yet I earnestly remember him, and my bowels are troubled for him.” A little later, in writing another pastor for help with Creasy, Mather predicted that “when you see him, you will certainly love him” (Silverman, 1984). Creasy continued to be a test to his father’s devotion until his untimely death at sea in 1724. But Mather’s torment upon hearing that news revealed the depth of his affection. “Ah vain world,” he wrote, “how little is to be expected in thee and from thee… disappointed harvests, how frequent are you… this world will afford us no substantial happiness.” In this respect, Mather’s feelings toward Creasy were not unusual: He grieved openly and sorrowfully when each of his children died. The fact that it occurred so frequently, or in the case of Creasy so far away, did not diminish the pain. Youthful indiscretion, sickness, and death were all a part of life for Cotton Mather and other parents in 18th-century British North America. But families were bound together with genuine love and affection, even if they were separated by vast distances and for long stretches of time. It was these sentiments that defined parenthood more than any other.
In many respects, Cotton Mather’s behavior was quite contrary to the image of a didactic 18th-century cleric. He did not assert the authority of patriarchy or parenthood, and he did not command his son or threaten him (aside from a hollow warning of banishment). Nor did he throw him out or condemn him to damnation and suffering. Rather, he fretted despondently, as one who worried about Creasy’s plight and cared deeply for him. Despite his conservative religious background, Cotton Mather was quite a modern parent for his time. Behavior such as his would come to be emblematic of familial relations in Colonial America (Morgan, 1966).
Historians have suggested that Europeans who settled in the New World acquired a distinctive view of life and social relations (Bushman, 1967; Butler, 2000). This was partly a reaction against Old World traditions of inherited privilege and hierarchical rules regarding status and opportunity. But even if settlers missed their former society, the New World offered a different set of expectations and freedom from many constraints in the old order. Although many young men observed what historian Harvey Graff has described as the “traditional pathways” by following in their father’s vocation and station in life, others did not. American children did not even have the memory of European convention to constrain them, and alternative pursuits often proved inviting (Graff, 1995).
Cotton Mather, for all of his regard of tradition and respect for authority, was a product of this new social environment. He did not dictate orders to his children as much as he educated them. In this respect, it is possible to say that he attempted to transmit a high level of cultural capital to his offspring. But the transfer of these attributes was never automatic; nor was it often easy, as Mather’s experience with Creasy suggests. Mather worried about his children’s prospects, but all he could give them was training and wise counsel. It was up to them to make their ways in the world as free, autonomous individuals. And of course there was Mather’s undying affection, a source of pleasure in his life and also anguish. Such is the puzzle of human development and education in the modern era: How to prepare the next generation for the challenges of the future, while trying to protect them from the dangers? It was a dilemma especially poignant in the so-called “New World.”